Jethro's Braindump

Singapore Society

Introduction to Sociology

Sociological Perspective

Defined as seeing the general in the particular

  • Child birth: Education, use of contraception
  • Suicide: Strength of social ties vs individualistic societies

Global Perspective

Study of the larger world and our society’s place in it. Logical extension of sociological perspective.

  1. High-income countries: 64 nations, including USA. These generate the majority of goods and services, people here own the most wealth.
  2. Middle-income countries: 73 nations People as likely to live in rural villages as developed countries. Considerable social inequality.
  3. Low-income countries: 57 nations Low standards of living. Majority struggle to get by: hunger, unsafe water etc.

Why we care:

  • Where we live shapes the lives we lead
  • Societies globally become increasingly interconnected

Benefits of the sociological perspective

  • Assesses the truth of common sense
  • Helps us see opportunities and constraints in our lives
  • Empowers us to be active participants in our society
  • Helps us live in a diverse world

Origins of sociology

Changes in Europe during 18th nadn 19th century:

  1. Factory-based economy

Workers becoming part of an anonymous labour force, weakening traditions that had guided community life.

  1. Growth of cities

“Enclosure movement”: fencing off of areas for diferent purposes. Social problems such as air pollution.

  1. Political changes

New ways of thinking: Hobbes, Adam Smith and John Locke. Philosophers now spoke of things like personal liberty and individual rights.

August Comte coined the term sociology in 1838, and saw it as a product of 3 phases:

  1. Theological

Religious view that society expressed God’s will

  1. Metaphysical (Renaissance: 15th Century)

Society was a natural rather than supernatural phenomenon

  1. Scientific

Rise of science, headed by Newton, Einstein and other scientists. Scientific approach used to analyze society.

Positivism: Use of “positive” facts as opposed to mere speculation

Sociological Theory

Translating observations into understanding Theory: Statement of how and why specific facts are related Three theoretical approaches

  • Structural-Functional Approach

    Framework for building the theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. Social structure: any stable societal pattern. Analyze these structures and their consequences for the operation of society as a whole. Robert K Merton distinguished between:

    1. Manifest functions: recognized and intended consequences of social patterns
    2. Latent functions: unrecognized and unintended consequences

    Social dysfunction: social patterns that disrupt the operation of society

  • Social-conflict approach

    Framework for building the theory that sees society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and change. Used to reason about social/wealth/racial inequality etc.

  • Gender-conflict approach

    Feminism, gender inequaltiy

  • Race-conflict approach

    POV that focuses on inequality and conflict between people of different racial and ethnical categories

  • Symbolic-interaction approach

    Framework for building the theory that sees society as a product of the everyday interactions of individuals We live in a world of symbols, and attach meaning to everything

    Summary in last two pages of reading week 1

History in Singapore

  • PAP hostile towards history in 1960s and 1970s.
  • ‘Before you discuss your future,’ Lee Kuan Yew exhorted the citizens of

Singapore in 1998, ‘remember how we got here.’

  • nostalgia for the 1970s was an inherent criticism of the fast pace of change and goals of the state.
  • PAP’s rule under threat: but capitalized it, harnessing history for nationalist aims
  • History is a trope of knowledge, an established way of thinking about society and as such is critical to understanding a society.
  • The failure of Singaporean society to theorize, or come to terms with, its own past, constitutes opaqueness in the study of Singapore.

Singaporean Histography

  • First written by colonizers
    • Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles(1781 - 1826) autobiography: A memoir of the Life of and Public Service of Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles. Published 1824.
    • Expansion of historical work happened closer to national independence (around 1960s)
    • Similar to HK, where waning of colonialism results in the exploration of their history.

Elite Representations

  • Large part of Singapore’s history told in terms of the life of LKY.
  • Texts are attempts to build a “national mythology”, conflates national history with personal.
  • Biography and autobiography provide an incomplete picture of a national history.
  • Political biographies and autobiographies of LKY reinforce the national narrative.
  • Inclusion in national education curriculum
  • The function of Lee’s autobiographies is broader than the writing of a national narrative, because the autobiography actively participates in the construction of a national imaginary.
  • ‘Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.’ - LKY
  • Lee is very much a product of colonialism, educated in a British tradition. He is often described as ‘a Chinese mirror of the perfect Anglo leader’.
  • S Rajaratnam and Devan Nair “midwives of the Singaporean nation-state”. Set the template for writing of history in the future.
  • Nair
    • Looking to the past for inspiration was both dangerous and backward.
    • Industrialization/modernization divided people into those who look to the past and those who look to the future.
  • Sourcing for historical material is hard: bias, difficulty of dating pre-colonial material.
  • Censorship by Singapore Government
  • Low profile makes it hard to attract academics to work in historiography
  • The way in which a nation constructs its history can be integral to the construction of the nation itself. 78 The relationship between history and the nation in Singapore is polemical because of the state’s changing attitude towards the past.
  • Rajaratnam’s 1970s statement that ‘knowing where you are going is more important than knowing where you came from,’ 79 and Lee Kuan Yew’s aforementioned proclamation of 1998, ‘Before you discuss your future, remember how we got here’
  • Education policies concerned with mother-tongue language learning and the inclusion of Confucian values in the moral education curriculum are part of this desire to cultivate Singapore as an inherently ‘Asian’ nation.
  • Threat and struggle are the two dominant themes the PAP promotes in its understanding of Singapore’s history, and events and issues are manipulated to fit with this model


Rather than censoring such responses, the Singaporean state responded to the rise in nostalgia by trying to co-opt it for nationalist purposes. In transforming nostalgia from something that could potentially undermine the policies and rhetoric of development, to a positive part of a broader and multilayered nation building project, the state is acting in a typically adaptive mode. In mainstreaming nostalgia, the state effectively moved nostalgia away from the 1970s and broadened its meaning. ‘Friends and Family: A Singapore Album collection’ is both a virtual interactive web-based exhibition and a traditional museum exhibition. Encouraged to contribute to the collective Singaporean Identity


With numerous strategies the Singaporean state attempts to control the meaning of history in Singapore. The past is presented by methods of display, content and absences, as uncontested and unproblematic. The historiography mirrors this. The history that the state constructs and manipulates ratifies the construction of cultural knowledge in Singapore, even when it is authored by. The more active role Singaporeans are playing as creators of historical knowledge has returned Singapore to a more traditional relationship with history. That is, the state is utilizing history as a form of nation building and as a way of negotiating a multiracial society. Instead of history presenting a threat to the fragile balance of a multiracial society, it is now a tool for bringing people together. In the shared experience of life in Singapore as well as the shared experiences of lives—births, marriages, celebrations, etc.—history has become a part of the national story. The state has been effective in widening the focus of nostalgia beyond the dangerous period of the 1970s, but as with other actions of adaptive regimes, as more is given to citizens the greater their potential demands become, and the greater the need for adaptation. In attempting to focus attention towards sites of nostalgia that are less problematic, especially the physical manifestation of buildings, the Singaporean state is still seeking to control the meaning of the past. An emphasis on heritage and the built environment freezes a historical moment and strips it of context. That is, the state is making heritage an object of the present and not the past. Likewise, ‘A Singapore Album’ and blog sites turn nostalgia into something that is contemporary not historical. In so doing the Singaporean state is simultaneously negotiating the production of historical knowledge and seeking to de-politicise history. If, as L. P. Hartley suggested ‘the past is a foreign country,’ 121 then making the past the present makes it less foreign.

What is Singapore society?

Defining Characteristics


  • National Education (NE) and Social Studies textbooks
  • Emphasis of several core values and recurring themes

What do you know of Singapore’s history and manner which it is presented?

National Society of Singapore (NSS)

Concept of Resistance

Ho (2002) Internet as the guidance

Gestural Politics

Goh Chok Tong: political scientists started talking about GP Just trying to project a liberal image maintain power relations (keep the people happy), prevent regression to oppressive society

Lee (2008) : How the state uses rhetoric (“openness”, “inclusiveness”) as liberal gestures They are gestures because words lack substance “Civic” vs “civil”: Duties vs rights


  • NGO, non-profit
  • Mission: promote nature awareness and appreciation
  • 1986: MNS:S discovered area around Sungei Buloh
  • MNS-S prepared its first conservation proposal
  • State planned for an agro-technology park in the area
  • 1989: Sungei Buloh Nature park was founded

Sungei Buloh isolated success

Government planned to build a golf course at Lower Pierce Reservoir, which was ultimately void

25,000 strong petition could not change decision to build housing area

2011, Bukit Brown cemetery. 8-lane highway to be constructed diagonally across the Bukit Brown cemetery

  • Economic Pragmatism vs Conservation

Gestural Politics

(Rodan 2006)

  • Promises of openness does not amount to democratic developments
  • Define the parameters of politics and political participation in Singapore under LHL’s charge.
    • mediate the meanings of political transformation in Singapore via creative institutional and gestural initiatives.
  • Goh Chok Tong promised a kinder and gentler style of rule when he took office in 1990.
  • “liberal gestures” continue to reproduce and mediate an illiberal regime.
  • Goh’s rule as prime minister (from 1990 to 2004) arguably became best known for the institution and entrenchment of the infamous out-of-bound markers
    • Golfing terminology intended to demarcate the parameters of political debate and dissent in Singapore
    • OB markers remain the most cited reason for political apathy among its citizens and the corresponding lack of public discourse on civil society and political issues in SG.
  • PM Lee’s decleration of greater openness under his premiership could be seen as the continuation of PAP’s “regime reproduction” initiatives that are intended to steer “change in Singapore down a preferred path of political co-option rather than political contestation".
  • Speech peppered with “openness” nothing more than a public relations statement to project Singapore as a mature, progressive and creative society to the rest of the world.
  • display of readiness to engage with “diverse views”
  • LHL’s rule since August 2004 typified by use of language and buzzwords that “seem long on rhetoric but short on content”
  • “openness” and “inclusiveness” are terms that can be invoked repetitively and as liberally as desired.


  1. 9 March 2004, Singapore Tourism Board (STB) launched “Uniquely Singapore”
    1. Comprising a range of media advertisements for different global markets
    2. Developed in the wake of SG’s recovery from its economically crippling encounter with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
    3. Coincided with the circulation of broad rhetoric that speaks of a “more open” and “creative” Singapore.
    4. Vibrant place where locals and foreign talents can “live, work and play”
    5. Time Magazine, 1999, Singapore as “competitive, creative, even funky”; such inscriptions mark a form of radicalness that is intended to displace old mindsets about Singapore’s colorless cultural landscape.
  2. Fashionable rhetoric of “creativity”, popularized by the Singapore government’s decleration in 2002 that it would embrace the global “creative industries” project.
    1. overarching intention of creativity and innovation is to boost Singapore’s economic capital by attracting talented individuals
    2. Productive energies of such “bohemian-creative” individuals would “rub off” on Singaporean workers.
  3. Publicized changes have included:
    1. a declared willingness to appoint openly gay public servants to sensitive positions in civil service
    2. Legalization of “bar-top” dancing in pubs and nightclubs
    3. Granting of permits for extreme sports such as skydiving
  4. 2003, government has been busy liberalizing the city’s nocturnal entertainment scene by allowing 24-hour “party zones” in night spots, along with a host of established hotels and clubs
  5. Tolerance to difference, diversity and “acceptance” of alternative lifestyles
    1. LHL - panoramic vision of Singapore included “an expanded space” for Singaporeans to “live, laugh, grow and be themselves”.
    2. Dimension and make-up of newly liberated space (like the invisible boundaries of the OB-markers), are likely to remain cryptic and ambiguous
    3. Policy changes affect minority of Singaporeans, but give PAP enough substance to push their “rhetoric”
  6. “Great Casino Debate”
    1. Under GCT’s rule, proposals for a casino in Singapore have been rejected since the 1970s
    2. Pushing for casino not straightforward, necessary to engage the citizenry by gathering feedback and guaging opinions
    3. 13 march 2004, Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo delcared Singapore’s new state of openness when he said in Parliament that the government would “keep an open mind” on whether to build a casino in Singapore.
    4. Religious groups dismayed at proposal, voiced strong objections
    5. Group of citizens calling themselves “Families Against the Casino Threat in Singapore” (FACTS)
    6. FACTS collected 20000 signatures through an Internet petition, to be submitted to President of Singapore.
    7. Most believed debate amounted to nothing but talkfest
    8. By Dec 2004, MTI received more than 700 letters, emails and faxes on the issue



  • Chinese 74.1%, Malays 13.4%, Indians 9.2%, Others (3.3%) - Singapore Census 2010
  • CMIO classification

Race as Colonial Legacy

  • Singapore is a product of Western colonial capitalism

The idea of meritocracy is never enforceable in practice beacuse social advantage is not equally distributed

Cultural Logic of SG’s Multiracialism

  1. Heightened racial consciousness
  2. Stereotypical thinking to reinforce racial differences
  3. Top-down

Lecture Summary

Lecture 1 Topic: Introduction - Studying Singapore Society

Knowledge production and dissemination

Given that we are social actors born in a specific socio-political and historical context, we tap upon a range of sources of knowledge when we attempt to explain social issues or phenomena (e.g. low fertility rates; academic underperformance; etc.) These can be organised broadly as lay perspectives; and disciplined perspectives. However, there are approaches which are regarded more dominant than others. We considered how and why a particular perspective may emerge as dominant in a particular context and the key stakeholders interested in sustaining such dominance.

Disciplined perspectives and the sociological imagination

To understand Singapore society beyond lay perspectives and the “commonsense”, the lecture introduced the framework of the “sociological imagination” (C.W. Mills). This broadly means we are able to go beyond the individual and connect “private” troubles to “public” issues (By extension, it is a quality of mind in making the connection between individual and society; biography and history; and self and the world.

The global perspective

The global condition is an extension of the sociological imagination, which is important in view of the connectedness our lives to the world and the global structures that govern our lives.

Blaming the victim

Therefore, when we extend our analysis beyond the individual and look toward more holistic and long-term systemic conditions to explain specific social phenomena, we move away from a limiting approach which solely “blames the victim” (Ryan).

Lecture 2 Topic: Histories and the Past

Representations and politics of “the past”

Our lecture stressed that we are not overly preoccupied whether the past (both pre-colonial and colonial) is historically “accurate” or otherwise, but rather how particular narratives of the “past” have been represented as dominant. Therefore, the lecture also considered who produces history (the “authors”) and its relationship to power, ideology and the state. In other words, these narratives are produced to reinforce specific interests of groups who control power and resources.

Historical consciousness

The engagement of “historical consciousness” directs our attention to focus on the multiplicity of interpretations of “the past” to push the boundaries of historical knowledge. This means moving beyond history as a tool for propaganda to appreciate historical complexities and diversity/pluralism.

Lecture 3 Topic: State and Civil Society

Civil society and citizen participation

Our lecture attempted to critically analyse the extent to which active citizenship engagement on a range of different issues (e.g. the environment, women’s issues, LGBT and human rights, migrant workers, etc.) is rendered possible in Singapore. We differentiated between “civic” and “civil” society, and closely interrogated the role of the state in establishing legal, social and cultural boundaries pertaining to citizen participation.

Gestural politics and “resistance”

We also closely discussed the relevance of Lee’s concept of “gestural politics” in which he refers as essentially “pseudo-politics” primarily aimed at sustaining the appearance of a liberal democracy while simultaneously extending the power of the authoritarian state through legal and extra-legal mechanisms, despite calls to “inclusiveness” and active citizenship.

Globalisation and the internet: The final part of the lecture emphasised the role of the internet and transnational alliances with civil society organisations beyond Singapore in an attempt to not only increase its reach to a wider audience, but more crucially to strengthen the authority and legitimacy of the different claims local civil society organisations were making.

Lecture 5 Topic: Race and Ethnic Relations

Race and ethnicity as socially constructed categories

Our lectures made the distinction between race (perceived physical/genetic attributes considered socially significant to a collective) and ethnicity (perceived cultural attributes and practices rendered salient to a group). The lecture further demonstrated how race and ethnicity are not fixed or immutable categories, but rather how the meanings of such categories are very much dependent on the context and temporal dimensions (In the case of Singapore, the lecture showed the role of colonialism and how this shaped our understanding of ‘race’ in Singapore). At the same time, the lecture addressed how these markers were not inherently ‘natural’ especially given the fact that ‘race’ as a category has been disputed by scientists. Rather, these markers only carried weight and significance when specific groups ascribe these physical and/or cultural markers as important.

Prejudice and discrimination

At the same time, we also made an important distinction between prejudice (rigid and unfair cognitive attitudes and emotions about a category of people) and discrimination (unfair and unequal treatment, behaviour, action and practice enacted against a category of people).

Privilege and access to resources

The lecture emphasised the importance of group membership and how these are linked to the allocation of rights, privileges, obligations as well as sanctions and disadvantages. These very much pertain to how race and ethnicity are employed as organising principles to govern social relations and the distribution of resources.

The politics of “difference”

Our lecture then focused on how the state in Singapore makes sense of difference, how such differences include “race” and the broader implications of such differences. We attempted to explain how “race” has been defined by the Singapore state, why “race” has been so prominent and salient in Singapore, and how these have configured different dimensions of our social life.

Multiculturalism and difference

We interrogated how the management of such differences has been translated into multiculturalist state policies and programmes that included housing, political representation and education. The lecture explained the different dimensions of multiculturalism which included the accordance of “equality” to each community and other principles. At a more critical level and through different areas of social and political life in Singapore, we appraised the implications, problems and contradictions embedded in the ideology of multiculturalism, particularly in relation to resource allocation, life chances and experiences of everyday racisms.

“Racial harmony” as repressive

The lectures finally appraised how multiculturalism provides the state the legitimacy to regulate and police race and ethnicity. We further interrogated how the discourse of “racial harmony” has been politicised to legitimise and reproduce state power and intervention, as well as the allocation and distribution of specific rights, privileges and resources.

Lecture 6 Topic: Gender and Sexuality

Unpacking key concepts

In this lecture, we made the distinction between “sex” (biological and physical distinctions between male and female) and “gender” (socially and culturally produced differences between men and women). We also explained three other important concepts central to our lecture: sexuality; patriarchy; and heteronormativity. Membership in these group categories of sex/gender and sexuality are pertinent, given that these are tied to privileges, rights and resource allocation. These therefore revisit the primary topic of this section which addresses social inequalities.

State patriarchy and policy-making

The second part of the lectures addressed the issue of gender inequalities and analysed the social, economic, and political conditions in Singapore which facilitated the ‘naturalisation’ of dominant gender norms, values, and practices privileging male experiences. These included our critical appraisal of population and family policies, and political representation.

Sexuality and heteronormative interests

The final part of the lecture critically discussed the inequalities premised on differences of sexuality and the social implications of invoking heteronormative discourses pertaining to “conservatism”, which again legitimises a particular configuration of the patriarchal and heteronormative familial form as well as acceptable and permissible gender and sexual behaviour, which at a broader level, is in line with the state’s economic and productivist interests. The concept of sexual citizenship was explained to bring to the forefront again questions of rights and privileges of sexual minorities; as well as issues pertaining to belonging and emotional attachment to the nation-state.

Lecture 7 Topic: Class and Meritocracy

Social stratification and meritocracy

In this lecture, we attempted to explain meritocracy as a system of stratification and rewards grounded on the basis of merit and non-discrimination (ethnicity, gender, sexuality, family, etc.). We discussed the key characteristics of meritocracy and how such a system which has been institutionalised and normalised in Singapore has shaped different dimensions in Singapore society. These include the fields of education and politics. We further appraised the challenges and contradictions in the ideology of meritocracy and unpacked the impetus of the ruling elite to sustain such an ideology, especially in relation to the justification of the given distribution of resources, rights and rewards. These also obscure how life chances and success are intimately shaped and connected to cultural capital, social connections, and other considerations. The lectures show further how the potentially egalitarian characteristics of meritocracy may clash with its emphasis on talent allocation, competition and reward, thereby transforming this into an ideology of elitism and inequality.

Class inequalities and the politics of welfare

The lectures addressed the implications of widening income disparities and class inequalities. These were connected to provisions have been organised along racial self-help groups and away from state welfare, and the consequences and problems of such a system that has been institutionalised in Singapore. These have been rationalised to steer attention away from an overdependence on the state for help and obscuring inequalities which have been produced through widening income gap and other state policies.

“Blaming the victim”

We also demonstrated how the ideology of meritocracy takes attention away from structural conditions and the role of the state in allocating resources, placing the onus of accountability to the individual instead. At the same time, the repetition of meritocracy denounces the presence of discrimination, arguing that success and failure are contingent on the basis of merit.

Lecture 8 Topic: Religion and Secularisation

Unpacking key concepts

In this lecture, we attempted to conceptualise “religion” by using functional definitions (what religion does) and substantive definitions (what religion is); as well as introduce the concept of “living religions” in Singapore.

Living religions and mixing-and-matching

The second part of the lectures elaborated on the concept of “living religions” and outlined the religious landscape in Singapore. The focus of living religions stresses on the level of religious practice and everyday religiosity. We employed the case study of Hinduism to further show how living religions may not necessarily fit within strict frames of religious behaviour. We used the concept of “mixing-and-matching” (process of selecting and enacting different styles of religiosity preferred by a practitioner without these traditions merging and becoming a unitary whole).

Secularisation as a process

In our lecture, we first discussed the characteristics and processes involved in secularisation and to critically assess whether the separation between religion and politics was possible, especially during occasions where religious beliefs and practice contravene national interests and security. In this section we focused on the role of the state, state intervention and religion in Singapore; and the implications of possible competing interests between religious adherents/practitioners and the state.

Lecture 10 Topic: Population and Health

Population and the “demographic crisis”

The lecture first considered the broader global and local conditions that organised health care provision and financing in Singapore. These included the dominant patterns in population affecting Singapore – large ageing population, low fertility rates, high old-age dependency ratio, increased morbidity and life expectancy, rise of chronic illnesses, and wider income disparities and inequalities, contributing to escalating health care costs.

Health System in Singapore

We subsequently examined the different principles structuring the health care system and policies in Singapore (both in terms of health care financing and coverage) and critically appraised the shortcomings of health care in Singapore. These can be categorised as ‘spectacular’ and ‘systemic’ failures, based on the prescribed reading.

Vulnerable groups and the politicisation of health care

At the same time, we identified several groups which may be more vulnerable than others such as HIV patients – as well as the problems these groups potentially faced. The provision of health care infrastructure to its citizens is also intimately tied to broader state interests and legitimacy to rule the nation.

The power of the state and the arts

The lecture primarily outlined the relationship between the state, popular culture and the arts, as well as the contesting visions and interests of the state pertaining to the arts (instrumental, pragmatic and political gains), as compared to the interests of arts practitioners.

Cultural hegemony

We introduced and applied the concept of “cultural hegemony” and its different dimensions to demonstrate how the ruling elites have been able to naturalise a set of dominant ideas, beliefs and practices as “universal” and “normal”. These ideologies can be potentially conveyed through popular culture and the arts.

Ideology and resistance

Different forms of popular culture (films, TV, music, plays, etc.) can be readily appropriated by the state to normalise state ideologies such as multiculturalism and meritocracy, but at the same time such forms can also be deployed by producers of popular culture and the arts to critically respond to issues and problems in Singapore society.

Lecture 12 Topic: Migration and Globalisation

Migrant workers in Singapore:

In our lecture, we screened the film “Ilo Ilo” which allows us to recalibrate our understanding of migrant workers in our everyday lives. At the same time, the film also afforded us glimpses to extrapolate relevant concepts we have employed in our module pertaining to the meanings of difference and its concomitant privileges, rights and access to resources; as well as concepts such as prejudice, discrimination, power and inequality embedded through race/ethnicity, class and gender as organising principles.

State regulation of migrant workers

In the next and final lecture (Week 13), it will briefly contextualise and elaborate the position of migrant workers as reflected in the film, how categories of migrants are established (foreign “worker” vs. foreign “talent”) and the implications of these distinctions in a “global city” like Singapore.